New Musical Express, March 25, 1978

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Elvis Costello


Nick Kent

Nick Kent, whose 1977 interview with Elvis Costello was internationally quoted as the definitive piece on The Man In Glasses, goes back for a second encounter. Chalkie Davies took the photos.

Elvis Costello is taking his guest-spot on Top Of The Pops in his usual sardonic stride.

Here in the proverbial lion's den, Costello and the Attractions are sequestered together off to one corner, waiting for their turn on the adjacent stage where they will in due course perform Tip For The Top "Chelsea", while casually observing the rest of those similarly lucky popsters going through their paces. Maybe it's the virtually surreal quotient of ludicrous pop cliches being blithely trotted out on the other twin stages that keeps the Costello collective so near-languidly amused.

Costello himself views the whole pantomime with a detachment that arguably typifies his recently-discovered professionalism. He's adopted his classic stance for the occasion — the Fender Jazzmaster cradled in his arms, the legs slanted somewhat askew as per usual — but the stance has become totally unselfconscious and his manner is strictly casual.

As Legs and Co troup onto their own personal little platform to go through the paces on Bob Marley's "Is This Love", Costello views the collective girly primping most sardonically, wondering out loud whether one of the stickers for his new album — "Warning: This is not this year's model" — can be surreptitiously applied to at least one of the, uh, dancers' physiques.

This Top Of The Pops encounter is in fact the second meeting with Costello in less than a week.

First time round we'd met some hours before a live taping of a Nicky Horne show for London's Capital Radio wherein Elvis would take over an hour of airtime to play some of his favourite tracks. At an Indian restaurant immediately preceding the taping, Costello seemed in fine spirits, leaping from topic to topic enthusiastically.

In the three hours of all-purpose casual reacquaintance-ship Elvis went into lavish detail about his songwriting plans — particularly his aspirations for other favourite singers as diverse as George Jones, Dusty Springfield and Ian Dury to record particular songs of his (he wanted Jones to record "Stranger In The House", Dury to do a new song, "Sunday's Best"). He also blithely ran through a list of non-originals he himself was toying with the idea of recording. Like, for instance, Marc Bolan's "Jeepster" and Abba's "Knowing Me, Knowing You". Costello has already performed songs like Richard Hell's "Love Comes In Spurts", The Damned's "Neat, Neat, Neat", John Sebastian's "Six O'Clock", Bacharach-David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", while Ian Dury's "Roadette Song" has become practically a staple item of each and every Attractions' set.

Then there are the old songs he's rewritten — a new "Less Than Zero" which he's changed strictly for American audiences substituting Lee Harvey Oswald for Oswald Mosley as the song's lynch-pin — not to mention his amiable recollection of Nick Lowe's underhand swiping of the title "Little Hitler" which Costello initially intended as the title for Model.

Costello has, however, not let the 'steal' go unchallenged, penning a song entitled "Two Little Hitlers" as a direct reaction to Lowe's theft.


Finally that evening came the Nicky Horne hour. Costello was initially undermined with nerves, producing a steady ingestion of wine and chain smoking. Once fortified however, he tended to overproject at times, providing the Costello watcher with intriguing glimpses mainly in the choice of records (the Dylan track "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" for example: he later confided that a year ago he would never have dared openly choose a Dylan song, fearing that such a ploy would have been interpreted then as the young songwriter bowing to an overbearing influence) but also coming on a little too brash at certain junctures, principally when asked by Horne about the generally super-positive reaction via reviews and such that he'd been granted while touring the States.

He claimed widely that, "Well of course, Americans have never produced one decent home-grown rock and roll band, so when they're confronted with the real thing they tend to get a little over excited". In the sheer brashness of that statement (which was immediately undermined when Elvis next chose a Richard Hell and The Voidoids track as a fave pick) seemed to lay an essential quality of Costello when psyched up to confront the media. It manifested itself in a need to go to somtimes near-ludicrous extremities in order to make a stand, in order to project, dead against the grain of his professions' over-weening blandness.


Nine months before our ultimate showdown interview, which eventually took place last Tuesday immediately after the TOTP taping, Costello and I had got together for our first ever meeting/interview. Due to numerous unforseen circumstances, this was an event that came to land Costello with an image as a true extremist — "Mr. Revenge and Guilt" in effect — that was reverberated throughout virtually very subsequent piece written on the man, particularly those penned for the American market where Costello, having toured twice, has given only two very curt interviews.

The TOTP interview then was convened by yours truly in order to find out, amongst innumerable other angles, whether the extremities of Elvis' statements during our first encounter had become something of an albatross around his neck.

Also, the TOTP environ had been chosen in order to talk to The Attractions as well, seeing as This Year's Model is nothing if not a group album, with the other three players deftly committed to backing up the welter of emotions honed out by their leader with an equivalent overwhelming musical intensity.

The Attractions are an odd combination when taking on masse, mixing together the hard-bitten professionalism and experience of the rhythm section (Pete and Bruce Thomas) with the disarming naivete of keyboards player Steve Naive.

Taken individually however, they each have their own story to tell. Drummer Pete Thomas' vocational progression into The Attractions is probably the most conventional and logical of the trio, for example. Formerly drummer with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers he was thus more than slightly acquainted with Jake Riviera, the Chillis' manager throughout. After the 1974 Kokomo/Chillis/Feelgoods tour proved that there was no tangible light at the end of the tunnel for that particular combo, Thomas went off to the West Coast of America at the request of cult folkie John Stewart who employed him as his drummer for a couple of years. Eventually the drummer's dissatisfaction with the Stewart connection, coupled with his burgeoning excitement about the reverberations of England's new wave scene, sent him winging back to Blighty at the request and expense of Wilko Johnson who'd just split from Dr. Feelgood. Thomas and ex-Chilli's compatriot Paul "Baseman" Riley worked with Wilko for a week, until the general depressing untogetherness forced Thomas to throw in his option, The Elvis gig followed quickly enough, with Thomas' Riviera connection more or less clinching it from the outset.


Bassist Bruce Thomas was more of an outsider, though his credentials are arguably the strongest of all Attraction members. A former Quiver then Sutherland Bros/Quiver bassist, be became disillusioned with the Sutherlands connection and split in a none too amicable fashion.

After that came a doomed one-off affiliation, name of Moonrider which got nowhere fast, and plenty of session work. "I've always wanted to be a member of ... y'know ... the group, the greatest band."

He'd heard "Less Than Zero" when the Elvis gig came up via an ad in the trades calling for members of a "pop combo" to apply to Stiff. When he came on the phone, Costello himself asked what other bands Bruce was into. "I replied that I liked Graham Parker and a couple of Steely Dan albums. Elvis immediately said "Forget it." Someone else though, who'd heard of Thomas' reputation persisted and an audition was arranged. Thomas, meanwhile, had secured the Aim album and worked out all the songs in advance. That, plus the fact that drummer Pete Thomas had always rated him, clinched it.

Keyboardist Steve Naive was the last to become an attraction. More to the point, he's easily the weirdest guy I've ever, ever interviewed, almost languishing in his reputation as innocent young cove.

"I really don't understand," he rails out, blissfully unaware of the ridiculousness of each contention he makes, "why we're not as big as the Bay City Rollers! I mean, it seems very slow, this pop business thing."

Asked if he joined Costello in order to become a part of the next Bay City Rollers, he blithely retorts, "Yeah, of course". He's the only member with no prior experience in rock, coming instead straight from the Royal College of Music where he was studying composition. He stuck around long enough to take the exams but it was by the end of the Stiffs tour that he learnt that he'd failed.

Meanwhile, he claims agreeably that he's never even heard Garth Hudson or Ray Manzarek — "or the Mysterons, either" as he insists on calling ? And The Mysterions.

"The only rock albums I ever owned were by T. Rex and Alice Cooper. The only concert I ever saw was by Alice Cooper. That was great, that was."

When Naive first heard the Aim album he'd already secured the gig and "I couldn't stand it. Couldn't make head or tail of it. Still can't really." What he likes best about playing with Elvis is "when is gets weird and spooky. I really like those bits". He speaks of his eventual ambition which is to write soundtrack music, particularly for the likes of Hammer movies. Though, he adds, his favourite of all would be something like Love Story. Michel Legrand, it turns out, is his favourite musician.

And oh yeah, what would happen were Elvis to suddenly decide to ditch that, ah, 'spooky' feel to his music?

"Oh well, I'd have to seriously think about sticking around then, wouldn't I."

The following Elvis Costello interview was taped after all the others and, without much need for preface, is simply shaped out in Q and A fashion as, on recurring listenings, it has become apparent that it was the only sensible way to document his statement.


N.K. — One of the first things that I think needs to be dealt with, however briefly, is your feeling about the first interview we did. It presented a very powerful, extreme portrait of you which many seemed to latch onto a little too readily. Like, Rolling Stone referred to you as "Mr. Revenge and Guilt", I remember.

E.C. — Well there are two ways of looking at that: one, in a professional capacity, and two, in a personal capacity. From a professional viewpoint ... see, I never wanted to be simply one-dimensional ... or two-dimensional, for that matter. But you've got to make a stand and go to some extreme in order to establish something directly opposed to all that awful blandness out there. Otherwise you're just another face, another number, so the fact that it's really extreme ... I wasn't faking it at all, mind, but still it was right on that very hazy borderline of this whole professional/personal thing where I could've become like the Pistols who stated something totally unacceptable, who cut through everything and ended up cutting their own throats in the process and burying themselves. Just to make that stand, y'know. Personally I'm still not quite sure. There's certainly a lot of strange things going on in my head, a lot of strange things still happening.

Were those original statements of yours very much a pre-planned manifesto of sorts, then ?

Not so much on a conscious level. See, I didn't know what was going to happen when we spoke — it was just a week after the album had been released — and I was still incredibly bitter about the business which, I might add, hasn't changed at all.

I still haven't forgiven them and I see no reason why I ever should. That's why I don't want to go to lunch with the Top Of The Pops producer. People in this fuckin' business just don't understand that I don't want to join their little club. I don't want to go down to the Roxy and hang out with Linda Ronstadt!

See, the music-biz as a whole — the crassness of it all — still actively disgusts me and any degree of success I may attain will not weigh against all that crap I went though initially. Even if I got to be as big as Fleetwood Mac, I still wouldn't feel any different. (Pause)

But at the same time I don't want to sound obsessed about it, like Phil Spector]. Y'know "people are persecuting me". Like, I don't think anyone is persecuting me.


O.K. but that leads me on to referring to something else which I've noticed others saying about you — a strong body of opinion, so to speak, which was typified by something Ian Dury said about you in NME. It was something like — "Oh yeah Elvis is a good songwriter but he's not a mature human." — "He is just a boy" I think was the exact reference.

Ah yes, a couple of people have said that. Nick (Lowe) said something similar and some people on the Stiff tour did as well. It usually takes the form of, yeah they think I'm a good songwriter — they've got a certain amount of respect for my songs — they think my talents are mature but they don't think I'm a mature human-being. That I'm incomplete somehow as a human-being.

But then again, I'd agree with them y'know. I'm not a balanced, mature person as far as I'm concerned. I don't want to sound like some weirdo, but still ... they're right, yeah. I would back them up certainly.

O.K. then, that said, surely the crux of the matter is — do you want to get more mature as a person and consequently get less extreme? Or do you consider those extremities, albeit immature or overly neurotic, as still indispensable as basic fuel for your songwriting?

That's a difficult one, you know. It's my "Will he have difficulty relating to success and will he still be as sharp as he was now he's been pulled off the streets?" dilemma. That tends to be the popular one that people get with their second albums. It was like that for Springsteen, wasn't it? Like, "What's he going to do now he's no longer on the streets in New Jersey?"

Ah, but that 'street thing' doesn't apply to you because you were never 'a man of the streets' as such. You were more into emotional extremities.

Right, so with me it's going to be "What's going to happen now he's a success? How are the changes going to affect him?"

O.K., well there are two ways around that. I could find myself 'praying' with people, projecting myself through them in order to write songs. Which I've already done, by the way. And then there's a dimension beyond that where that thing becomes a dimension within itself.

One new song of mine for example — "Dr. Luther's Assistant" — is a case in point. It's a new interest of mine, y'know — people owning people, people playing with other people like pawns. Not like a 'pawn of society' or even a 'pawn of the corporation'. Just one-to-one. So that's one new thing that's still just as emotional as before.

The other thing (Pause) you see, I don't necessarily think I'm going to become a 'nicer person' or a more 'complete' person as a consequence of all this. Because this job is not designed to make you nicer, or more mature even. You can say — "Oh you're just immature, you'll soften up" but I fuckin' won't because ... say, tenderness. I can feel tenderness and I'm not afraid of it and it isn't entirely absent from either of my albums. It's just that everybody with their typical lack of imagination chose to ignore any signs of that completely and plump for the other extremities instead.

See, people don't realise that I may not be mature because I may just not fuckin' want to be. I don't know what being grown-up is, see. And I don't think it's necessarily any better.

In other ways though ... sometimes I feel 100 years old or certainly much older than I actually am. A lot of the time I think my reactions to many given situations are those of a middle-aged person — I'm not saying that's unique or anything — but therefore I do actively resent being called a 'kid' because I know there's no set pattern of maturity. Christ, when I was 18 — five years ago — I felt 30 and it's only in the last, say, three years that I've actually felt younger so to speak. At 18 I was really deadly, deadly cynical, and it's only been in the last six months that I've been feeling much younger, much less serious. If only because I'm starting to see the whole joke — the great joke of life itself. (Laughs).

On a different subject ... the new album, I was playing various tracks from Model to a friend who'd previously not been too impressed by your stuff. He was certainly far more impressed but claimed that he was still turned off by the vindictiveness he noted coming out against the whole fashion-femme fatale-Vogue thing ...

Well yeah, there is a quotient of vindictiveness there, but there are so many other things going on at the same time. For one, there are more positive aspects to, say, "Lipstick Vogue" than are noticed. The chorus is, after all, "you're not another mouth lost in the lipstick vogue." That's positive.

In fact the negative side is actually turned in on myself when I say "Sometimes I almost feel / Just like a human being". Because often I don't feel quite human — I don't feel real. And that song was written long before other people started describing me as 'robotic' or 'an android' and all that.

It's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy y'know. In fact, there are quite a few things on this album that are like that. Frighteningly so, in fact. Things I've had absolutely no control over, I mean, at least four of the Model songs came true after I wrote them.

Such as?

Well (pause), first of all you could almost break down my two albums and put songs under headings. Like, with the first album, it was Politics / Philosophy (general) / and Revenge. And with Model you kinda go — Politics, then Fashion and then whatever else ... there's some other heading in there too. See, "Chelsea", "Lipstick", "Paradise", "This Year's Girl", "Pump It Up" are all kind of songs about 'fashion' so they do relate to me now even though they were written before I became a 'fashion'.

See, the self-fulfilled prophecy thing is exactly that: in a perverse way, I am currently becoming fashionable, a fashion unto myself (grits his teeth). I never ever wanted that, mind you. It's very frightening in a way because that's the very last thing I ever wanted to become. From the very beginning there was never any air-brush stuff. I could never imagine a lot of people wanting this ugly geek in glasses ramming his songs down their throats. And that's exactly what I'm in it for. I'm in it to disrupt people's lives.


So lat's talk about individual songs on Model. Like, I think one critic called you a misogynist because of "This Year's Girl".

Right, which is ridiculous because "This Year's Girl", if anything, is like a female "Miracle Man" in that they both deal with inadequacy — with humour, I believe. Like, "This Year's Girl" is not one girl — it's a song for and about all the girls who desperately follow this year's trends; the Biba girls or Fiorucci or whatever. And I'm not castigating them personally for swallowing that myth. In fact it's almost compassionate in a way. If it's an attack, it's an attack on the idea, or the notion.

What about "Living In Paradise" then? Is it about Los Angeles as I reckoned in my review?

Not exactly, no. Actually it's a completely different version of a very old song from the Aim sessions with a really ancient last verse attached to it. That's the form anyway but ... no, it's actually me envisaging the future if I let certain things happen to me. This I do in two songs, one of which is "Hand In Hand", the other being "Paradise".

"Paradise" itself is a notion, an idea of what people think would be paradise but which in effect is so totally decadent that, were they to go along with it, they'd end up just utterly corrupt and perverted.

"Hand In Hand" is more complicated. Like it stems ... I wrote it in fact specifically for Nick Lowe, who rejected it because at the time he was more into two-chord things but ... well, that doesn't matter so much as the fact that at the time of Aim's mixing sessions, Nick was going through this incredible period of misery and depression as a result of the whole Rockpile episode with Swan Song and all that. Now I don't know Nick that well, though we work well together, but I don't socialise with him and I ... I haven't seen his darker side, for example (Laughs). But he was so obviously just totally 'cut up' by this experience that I wrote "Hand In Hand" as a consequence of it all not simply for him but also because the main figure — the Jimmy Page-type who is actually stating those things, and let's not beat around the bush here with Swan Song and all that crap — is just the sort of unhuman monster type I could become if I let myself go that far.

So the song is totally given over to stating someone else's feelings with just the slightest tinge of ... not "fear" but y'know ... yeah, that could just about be me, y'know.

That's actually a proven example of what I meant when I spoke earlier about using other people as mouthpieces. It may one day totally get like that ... when I'm writing totally impersonal songs. See, I just can't carry on doing ... y'know, "more revenge". It'd be like The Clash singing "White Riot '78" or something . .

How do you see these songs then as opposed to the previous collection on My Aim Is True?

Actually I see the Aim songs as just "a collection," really. On Model, in the beginning, I was into creating something more complete — not a concept album but something more interlinked, yeah? Back then there was still "Detectives" which ... actually though it's not on this album, "Detectives" was very important because it was the first song that proved to me that I could write in a whole new style. Like, I see this album as being generally more 'oblique' lyrically than Aim.

Really?

Well, yeah, that's my viewpoint anyway. Like, the imagery is generally far more fragmented, in songs like "Chelsea" and "Lipstick" — very much in a non-linear fashion. Like "Chelsea" is more like snapshots intercut between two movies — Smashing Time and Blow-Up. But "Detectives", which I wrote in the first 24 hours of constantly listening to the first Clash album which I'd just bought, was the first song where I discovered I could write in that fragmented style.

But then again y'know, "This Year's Girl" is very specific. It was so specific at first that it read like a chronicle. I didn't see any emotion in it until later on.


What about "Little Triggers"? That seems a very weird song.

It is a very weird song, yeah. Different things come to mind when I hear it now. It's more "evocative" than direct. More like a poem though I hate poetry usually. It's weird — the way I see it now, it relates very much to "Alison". It's like the reverse side of the feeling in "Alison" though I certainly didn't plan it that way.

Ah yes, "Alison ". That strikes me very much as a key song for you because it's the nearest you've ever got to a direct manifestation of 'tenderness' though, at the same time, you're recoiling from exactly that feeling.

Well that song is very, very personal to me and I rarely perform it now. Very rarely. I'm usually just not in the right mood. And it's almost frightening that, because when I find that feeling creeping up on me — when I perform that song — that I'm attaching more importance to my work than is reasonable. It's like 'yeah, it's only rock 'n' roll' but, at the same time, rock 'n' roll as such is my life. It's all I do, so these songs are me.

That's why people whose songs you admire are usually so disappointing when you meet them. Because their songs are their lives and they don't have a life outside their songs. And often I feel exactly the same way.

An inevitable question has to be: how do you currently view the third album?

God knows! (Laughs). I could completely flip out and do a "Radio Ethiopia" (Laughs). No ... as a progression. I want to plough in more emotions, not because people have drawn this one-dimensional picture of me but just ... for my own sanity, really.

How many useable 'new' songs do you have at present?

Oh, about 15. There's "Sunday's Best", which is nothing more than a commentary on the English way of life, as far as I can see. There's "Dr Luther's Assistant" which I mentioned before, where Luther is this Howard Hughes sort of figure and his assistant ... well, you'll hear it soon enough.

There's another one called "Chemistry Class" which I do solo and also "Green Shirt" which is an offshoot of "The Beat" in a way. These songs will be more, uh ... outward looking (Laughs to himself). Like, there's less humour on Model than the last, don't you think? It's more vicious overall but far less personal, though. But then my sense of humour is very, very bleak, Very low key.

Finally, two questions. First — do you consider yourself an obsessive?

Yeah, I guess I am. I can get very obsessive ... it changes a lot, but I tend to get anything really.

So would you agree with the old Joseph Conrad quote that a man fixed with one idea is clinically insane?

Hmmm — possibly, but then I don't think I'm obsessed with one idea. In fact I know I'm not, or else I would be completely happy to play up to the image of me as a one-dimensional revengeful character all the time (Pause).

Actually I think I'm more devious than obsessive.

Final question. Do you consider yourself an 'artist'?

No, absolutely not.

Then you consider your vocation as being simply a singer and a songwriter.

Yes (Pause). No, not my vocation. That's a fair blanket description of myself but not my vocation ... my ultimate vocation in life is to be an "irritant"! Not something actively destructive just someone who irritates, who disorientates. Someone who disrupts the daily drag of life just enough to leave the victim thinking there's maybe more to it all than the mere hum-drum quality of existence.

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New Musical Express, March 25, 1978


Nick Kent interviews Elvis Costello.


A two-page ad for This Year's Model appears on pages 22-23.

Images

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Cover and page scans.

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Photos by Chalkie Davies.
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Advertisement.

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